5 things to do on a luxury tour of Morocco

Up until 20 years ago Morocco used to be a land lost in the collective imaginary. For most people, it was associated with the film ‘Casablanca’, of which not one single scene was actually shot in Morocco. For a few other lucky ones, it was the behind- the- closed- doors hippy (very) chic crowd associated with Yves Saint-Laurent or Paul Getty, looking in Morocco for a certain taste of paradise lost within their opulent villas and by invitation-only house parties deep in the palm grove of Marrakech. Fortunately, things have changed in the last few years. Perhaps not as over the top as Dubai or Shanghai, Marrakech has become synonym with hedonism and one of the favorite getaways of the rich and famous. But it turns out that the boom of the red city spurred these last few years a country- wide renaissance of places and activities that cater for the well- heeled that wanted their options not limited to only the red city. We have compiled a list of what we think are the best ones in 2014. Remember, this is also about diversity for there is hardly a country more spectacular and spectacularly diverse.

1. Be a guest at Dar Ahlam

Classified a few years back by Harper’s Bazaar as the first among the 15 most fabulous villas in the world, Dar Ahlam is above all a home which embodies its atmosphere and follows your rhythm. More than a guest house, the accent here is put on the experience, not the size of your suite. On the what but even more so on the how. Naturally, the standard is there: noble materials have been employed throughout the house, the perfumes and bathroom products have been created by none other than Olivia Giacobetti and the two resident French chefs work wonders in reinventing the Moroccan cuisine. Here, you will find no TV’s, no telephone and no card keys either…

Dar Ahlam main kasbah and pool

Each day, unique experiences are tailored to each guest with the sole purpose of surprising and enchanting. How would you like to find your room differently arranged at night then when you left it in the morning ? To never know where the next lunch or dinner will be served? Or consist of ? To loose track of time ?…

Speaking of locations, it may be inside a private lounge in the Kasbah, one of the secret gardens of the guest house, in a nearby gorge for a magic dinner or a picnic set within the Valley of Roses…

If you want to step outside this garden of Eden, you may choose to visit the salt mines and witness the almonds blossom in spring. Or catch the sunset on Ksar Ali, the ruined Kasbah majestically overlooking the palm grove. Trek in Dades gorge and find out the meaning of ‘monkey fingers’. Visit a 14th century Kasbah, meet the local potters and ironmongers or act like a local and bargain the price in a Berber souk.

Each experience is organized around a theme where each detail is thought accordingly. The menus change. And so do the linen, the cutlery, the candles, the colors, the site… ‘ You know, everything can become reality here’ are the first words one hears when checking in (one day one of the guests took this so seriously that for her immersion into the ancient Egypt, she asked that her bathroom should be regularly filled with camel milk… No, that wasn’t accommodated for.)

Days go by here as anywhere else, but they never look alike. And for the first time in many many years, you give up fighting time and surrender to its passage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the guests feel like having a ‘vacation from a vacation’ after staying at Dar Ahlam. For the spell to really settle in, we recommend staying at least 2 nights. A place where words just don’t do justice.

Dar Ahlam wild camping

2. See (and hear) Fes World Sacred Music Festival

Throughout the years, Fes World Sacred Music festival has progressively yet discreetly built a reputation that sets it apart from other similar festivals. This is a festival where flamenco shares stage with gospel, tango and fado succeed themselves to traditional sitar music or the griots of Mauritania. The organizers have always succeeded in finding low- key yet extremely talented bands and artists and have them share the stage with some of the most prolific world music actors of recent decades. Past artists include Bjork, Patti Smith, Paco de Lucia, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez or Youssouf N’Dour (who will be performing again this year).

Fes Music Festival concert in a Riad

But what makes the festival really exceptional bringing out the best in the music is the décor itself. There can’t possibly be any other better background than the century- old palaces and gardens of one of Arab world’s jewel cities – Fez. I remember one particular late summer night last year walking down a derb sidelined by candles throughout the maze of Medina’s streets and entering Dar Adyel, a three- century old palace, all zellij, marble and cedar columns. The small audience was laying on Berber carpets spread out in the patio or the chairs sidelining the walls. By the time the northern India group settled into their traditional music, a hand’s reach from the audience, only a few dim lights around and the starred sky above , it’s fair to say everyone present went into a silent trance.

Fes Music Festival old city panorama

This year, the festival’s theme is ‘Conference of the Birds’ in allusion to a the 4500 lines epic written by a Persian poet in which the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their king, as they have none.

As the poem, this edition is a spiritual and artistic journey through the cultures and traditions of the world. All continents are represented by the greatest artists , proven masters in the practice of their art or their song : Roberto Alagna, one of the greatest tenors of modern times that will present a worldwide premiere for the festival; Tomatito, a living legend of flamenco guitar ( Paco de Lucia, that performed last year, sadly passed away this February), Yossou n’Dour and Johnny Clegg presenting a joint project paying homage to Nelson Mandela, and Rokia Traoré representing the deep Africa; Kadem Saher , the prestigious Arabic singer from the Middle East or Zakir Hussain , the most famous Indian musician in the art of tabla. From Latin America we will have Luzmilla Carpio (Bolivia) and from United States Buddy Guy, the great Chicago blues man.

Artists from China, Palestine, Ireland, Hungary, Mauritania and many other countries and cultures will also perform, not to mention the much sought- after Sufi nights at Dar Tazi, out in the gardens under the moon and the stars.

Fez, the rather frozen- in- time city, truly comes to life during the festival, hosting a variety of exhibitions and educational activities, which take place simultaneously in the city and its gardens. Also, recently, a new project was born, the ‘living itineraries’ that allow the discovery of a millennia old Medina to the rhythm of Sufi music and lost-in-time tales.

3. Experience ‘Le Spa’ at Selman Marrakech

Recent years have seen quite a few openings of opulent hotels in and around Marrakech, each trying to out- shadow the other by its décor, restaurant menu, concept and, almost always, a spa. We think of Palais Namaskar and its Feng- Shui- inspired spa, Jardins de La Koutoubia and its Clarins Spa or Dior spa at Es Saadi gardens hotel. But perhaps the one that really stands out is Le Spa at Palais Selman, a 61 room lavish hotel, 10 minutes drive outside Marrakech.

Le Spa @ Selman Palace hydrojet room

Branded by Conde Nast Traveler as one of ‘The Best New Spas in the World in 2013’, Le Spa is a standalone space from Henri Chenot, more famously known for his medical spa in the Italian Alps and focuses on relaxation but most importantly on rejuvenation.

Based on the Henri Chenot Method, founded at the Palace Merano over 40 years ago whose focus is the combination of principles of Chinese medicine with the latest Western medicine discoveries, Le Spa @ Selman has now created its own bespoke offering. The mission: to rebalance the body by helping it.

Each day, the body lives a new cycle of 24 hours; this cycle is divided into three specific phases while observing the natural biorhythms: The Elimination, The Assimilation and finally the Regeneration. By recognizing this natural division, one will be able to make the right choices for his/ her body in terms of nutrition, physical activities, relaxation, etc.

Another pillar of the Chenot Method is based on traditional Chinese medicine, determining the energy field that each individual possesses..

Finally, the energy circulation is the third pillar of the Chenot method. The identification of individuals problems enables working on specific energy points and potential restrictions- meridians. The method enables developing treatments that will allow sustainable actions regarding specific problems the body will encounter (fatigue, health problems, stress, skin problems, etc…)

In order to put these principles into practice, Le Spa is equipped with 7 treatment rooms, 4 hydrotherapy rooms, a jet-massage pool and an expansive Hammam area. There are an additional 2 outdoor heated pools ( 24 and 28 degrees Celsius), a jacuzzi and an indoor relaxation pool and fitness suite. In addition, there is a private spa suite complete with its own Hammam, Massage and Hydrotherapy areas. Light and dark, shadow play, shimmering mosaic tiles, traditional plasterwork… Le Spa is unquestionably inspired by the Orient.

Le Spa @ Selman Palace indoors pool

The spa together with the hotel and the stables were all designed by Jacques Garcia, the French architect responsible for the restoration of La Mamounia in Marrakech or Le Fouquet in Paris. Mr Garcia said in an interview when asked about what inspired him when building the spa: ‘’The spa is of course inspired by the Orient. It reminds me of the hammams of ancient Istanbul. For me personally, the ultimate one is at the harem of Topkapi. The optical illusions of light and shade cast by the mashrabiya screens…. It is most fleeting and mysterious. It is a place of pure comfort and refinement. With its two private pools, the spa is an oasis within an oasis.’’

4. Spend a night in an en suite tent in the Sahara

Most people taking a tour of Morocco want to spend a night in the dunes of the Sahara. Why ? There is something about the Sahara that startles the imagination of even the most conformist person. Is it the tales of Sheherezade ? The Hollywood blockbusters and their portraying of the desert knights, a mixture of ruthless and mysterious, cherishing their freedom as their greatest good? The tales of die- hard romantics like Lawrence of Arabia or Isabelle Eberhardt ? Hard to answer.
One thing is certain: a night in the desert always exceeds the expectations and is something remembered for the years to follow.

Breakfast with a view at Azalai Camp

For those that don’t want to rough it, living the desert experience doesn’t necessarily mean spending the night under a wool tent hardly larger than your mattress or sharing toilets with the rest of the camp tenants. The last few years have seen quite a few openings of ‘luxury’ camps. Bouchaib and Khouloud, the young couple owners of Azalai Desert Camp in Erg Chigaga have taken things a step further. Instead of the typical Berber wool tent and bulky Syrian armchairs, they have used linen as material and white and beige as the main colors throughout, a style that has been coined ‘ Gentleman Voyageur’. Pouffes are laid out at night with cushions to admire the Milky Way and watch stars up close with the on- location Sky Watcher telescope.

Luxury camp tent at Erg Chigaga by dawn

There are only 4 luxurious canopy roof tents that accommodate exclusively the lovers of the great sand dunes and travelers wishing to experience the overwhelming otherness of the Sahara. Each tent has 20 square meters and are provided with everything you can dream of : mosquito nets, a Simmons mattress 180 cm wide bed and a real bathroom not only functional but full of charm, each with its own marble topped sink from Fez.

The elaborate Moroccan dinners are prepared back at the hotel and served hot in an open air ‘dining room’ set in front of every tent.

A fifth VIP tent ( 35 square meters), with its own dedicated private butler is there for those looking to linger for a few nights in the dunes in complete privacy and has plenty of extras to make sure you have things to do when dune watching is over: an area to sample refined cuisine and a lounge- library to surrender to the pleasure of a board game or a travel novel. In a style suitable to the peculiar spirit of the destination, picnic chic , camel rides and even hypothetical rounds of golf on a green mini set a few sand dunes away, punctuate the passage of time .

But perhaps the most interesting is to travel back in time, hop on a camel and have an intimate tete- a – tete picnic on the banks of Sacred Oasis, with white tablecloth and silverware. Now, just lay back and picture the caravan traders reaching the precious source of water after weeks of navigating the relentless sea of dunes.

For those short on time that can’t miss spending a night in the Sahara, good news is on the way. Soon, a one hour Cesna flight (only the pilot, 2 passengers and their luggage) will carry the few lucky ones from Marrakech over the snowcapped peaks of the Atlas Mountains into the desert for a night in the dunes. To be continued…

5. Fly in a hot air balloon over Marrakech

Waking up on your holidays at 5 AM has to be for a good reason. Especially when you have to convince your other half to follow your example. Or the children, if it is a family holiday. Seeing the ‘red city’ , the Berber dwars and the millennia old palm grove. From above. 400 meters high. Is that a good reason ? We think it is.

If you are worried about catching up on your sleep, know that the whole affair will be wrapped up by 11 AM and you can have a snooze by the pool back at your Riad, after an early lunch. If this is not a romantic way to surprise your loved one(s), well, we don’t know what is. Especially when you also have the option of having the balloon all for yourselves with nothing more than the pilot and the butler filling your glasses with champagne while you take in the panorama.

Early in the morning, you get picked up by a spotless 4×4 and driven into the palm grove where the team starts filling the balloon. Once the gas bottles and burners are set up inside the basket, they check to see if there is no gas escape, place the basket on the side and attach the actual parachute.

Then the inflation begins. The pilot turns on the burners which heat up the air inside. Meanwhile the assistants help keeping the hot air balloon down. The last tests are being performed then passengers can come on board : the preparations are finished.

Finally, the order is given by the pilot: “Release all!” All aids release the cords at the same time. Everyone is holding their breath. The moment is magical as the journey begins. For those who remained on the ground, the show is fabulous. For those on board, it is both fascinating beauty and adrenaline. This delightful sensation of floating in the Moroccan sky, suspended inside a balloon quickly replaces the initial surprise of the vertical take-off.

Balloon flight over Marrakech

The red adobe villages below contrast with the lush green of the palm groves and other olive farms, while in the distance the Atlas Mountains show off their majestic peaks covered in snow.

Soon enough it is time to think about the landing. The pilot chooses a flat area and starts the approach after having explained to the passengers what to do upon making contact with the ground. With a bit of luck, there is no wind and we have what we call a ‘kiss landing’. If the wind picks up, we may get dragged along a few meters. What better after the flight, then to enjoy a mint tea and talk about the experience we just had ? The 4×4 tour takes us to one of the small Berber villages we just flew over and discover the enticing Moroccan hospitality by having a mint tea with Moroccan pastries or freshly- baked bread dipped in olive oil.

Cristian Martinus is Managing Director at Sun Trails.

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Comments (6)

  1. James says:

    The exoticism of Morocco and the decadence it offers is simply mind blowing! I never knew about the Fez music festival, and the pairings of local artists with world famous names, but it is definitely on my radar now…

  2. Lee Briggs says:

    Memories of the movie Casablanca, and the song ‘Marrakesh Express’ by Crosby Stills Nash have instilled in me a desire to visit Morocco, along with various travel shows that visit the various cities there.
    Of the things listed here, I would be most interested in being a guest at Dar Ahlam, that sounds like an exciting as well as luxurious experience.
    And spending a night in an en suite tent in the Sahara. (It certainly sounds better than “spending the night under a wool tent hardly larger than your mattress or sharing toilets with the rest of the camp tenants.”) And the reasons you listed for wanting to spend a night in the dunes all seem to be appropriate to me.

  3. Sun Trails has arranged for two visits to Morocco and now we’re thinking we’re going to have to plan a third. Apparently ST has some new adventures in mind and based on every place they’ve taken us so far, we’re ready to go again!

  4. My head is swimming with all of the luxurious opportunities you have presented, each one more magical then the last. If I had to be pinned down, the music festival looks really special. Artists from around the world under the moon and stars looks like an experience that would be hard to beat. And Fez becoming even more alive, another great perk of attending the what looks like quite an event.

  5. noel says:

    Excellent choices, I would love to experience all those wonderful luxury choices, especially the spa treatment in that stunning spa.

  6. What a great collection of luxury extravagances in Morocco that would certainly be appealing if feasible. Of course all of these would be awesome experiences but for me the stand out attraction would be spending a night in an En Suite tent in the Sahara. I am under the philosophy that to spend a night in the Sahara would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and experiencing this in a tent would just enhance the overall time spent there.

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